October 26, 2013 11:27:16 PM
William Browning - [email protected]
Every morning without fail, before Peter Jones Jr., catches the bus bound for New Hope High School, he hugs his father and mother.
For Peter it's a simple act of affection. For his parents it is that and more. His father teared up last week talking about his son's hugs.
"I'm an emotional type of guy anyway," Peter Sr. said. "But especially when it comes to my son."
He was sitting in the family room of their Hughes Road home when he said that. His wife, Norma, has decorated the room with dozens of family photos and a well-read Bible was nearby. Family and faith are their bedrocks.
But there have been struggles. The family was once bigger than it is now. A car wreck claimed the lives of two daughters a decade and a half ago. After that a sadness fell over everything.
Peter Jr. was 3 years old at the time of the crash, too young to understand. But in the wake of the tragedy that claimed his sisters' lives, Peter, who inherited from his father a big infectious smile, got his parents through the pain in his own way.
"He made my life," Peter Sr. said. "It was a struggle, now -- I cannot lie about that -- but he's been there for me by the way he just embraces life."
His hugs are a reminder of what the family has been through.
When Peter Jr. was born 19 years ago a nurse said he would never speak. Someone else said he would never have a life of his own. When his parents learned he would live his life with Down syndrome, they did not know what to expect.
"It was a hard time," Norma said. "Some parents don't want to say it, but to have a child with a disability, it felt like a death. The death is not the child -- I was happy he was my boy -- it's the dreams that you have for that child that die."
For a long time Peter Sr. worried. It can be a tough world, he said. He was thought of the adversity his son, who has speech and vision impairments and cognitive disabilities, would always face.
"I know this sounds selfish," Peter Sr., 61, said. "But sometimes I thought when I leave here, I prayed for Peter to go with me so he wouldn't have to face that cruel world."
He found peace, he said, when he accepted that God knew Peter was "special when He made him. He's going to take care of him."
Norma, a 54-year-old elementary school teacher, believes Peter Jr. came into their lives to prepare them for the loss of their daughters.
It happened one morning in April 1997. The girls were on their way to school at New Hope.
"They met their fate with a logging truck," Peter Sr. said.
April, 18, died. So did Melissa, who was 6. Petrice, another daughter, survived.
Everyone felt the grief. There was a temptation to collapse. But Peter Jr., with his own struggles, was still there. Norma Jones said her son would not let the family fold.
"All he knew was that (his sisters) were gone," she said. "It was almost like he was dragging all of us along because he never stopped being his jolly, happy self."
Peter is the type of kid who paints a pumpkin purple in honor of his favorite football team's colors. The type of kid who comes down the stairs each morning with the loudest footsteps. The type of kid whose laughter seems to echo through walls.
In the middle of their grief, his parents could not help but feel the joy their son meets life with, and it helped them move on.
"It was like he wouldn't let us die along with our girls," Norma said.
This is what Norma wants for her son: "To be as independent as possible...I want him to find a good job. He, himself, would like to be married. I would like to see that happen for him one day. But, in the end, I would just want him to live life as best as he can, to his potential."
When Peter began kindergarten his mother asked that his teachers not "babysit" him. Outside of his special education classes, she wanted him involved with general students as much as possible.
So earlier this year when Peter, now a senior at New Hope High, walked into the first day of school and announced he was going to be homecoming king, his teacher encouraged him.
Teresa Teague, a special ed teacher at the high school, has taught Peter the last four years.
"He's a social butterfly," she said. "He's just awesome."
Teague began helping Peter in his campaign to be voted king. Together, they drew up flyers and posted them around the campus. She took him around to senior classes and he stood before each one and said, "Vote Peter King for homecoming king. Thank you."
His parents were supportive. They readied him for disappointment, too.
"I told him, 'You might not win,"" Peter Sr. said. "So make sure at the least you have fun."
If nothing else, Norma figured, it could be a learning experience for Peter.
"New Hope is a safe place for him," she said. "But with him about to transition from that safe community to the world...he's going to have to learn about being told, 'No.'"
After graduation, Peter's next step is still a question mark. His parents hope he can eventually get a job in a structured environment he excels in. They have a small garage beside their home that could easily be converted to an apartment, though, and his first move will likely be to it. There, his family hopes, he can find his footing.
"I'm getting old," Peter Sr. said. "When I leave here I want to know Peter is as far along as he can be and can help himself as much as he needs to make it."
Homecoming at New Hope was held two weeks ago. The homecoming king announcement took place on the football field before the game's kickoff.
Peter Sr. and Norma, along with Petrice, who is now 26 and married, filed into the stands with other family members.
Peter, dressed in a black tuxedo and rose boutonniere, took the field with the rest of the homecoming court. No one except organizers knew who the student body had elected king. It was something Peter had dreamed about all through high school, Teague said.
His mother, watching him down on the field, expected him to be ecstatic in front of the crowd. But Peter surprised her.
"He was quiet," she said. "He had a somber look on his face."
But she could tell he was proud. His father cried. So did other family members.
Norma went down on the field to be beside her son. When she got there she began crying, too.
But Peter never did. He was too busy enjoying the moment. He walked over with that big smile on his face and like every morning, hugged his mom.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.